Parents often ask me to recommend albums besides mine that their kids might like. What they really mean, though, is "could you recommend some albums that my kids will like and that won't make me, on our hundredth listen in the same week, leap out of a moving car?" They're just too polite to put it that way.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and my girls and I will receive no awards for scholarly research on the subject but, since you asked, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to recommend the following (and ever-growing) list of albums that my girls and I love together, in no particular order...
Grenadilla, Grenadilla (2010)
Of all the family music albums we have, this is the one I'm most likely to be caught listening to when the kids aren't around. Songwriter and lead singer Debbie Lan comes from Cape Town, South Africa, and her music is infused with
the joyous sounds of Kwela. Penny-whistle, sparkling guitars, and rich, luxurious vocal arrangements make
this album shine. The band released a new album in 2012 which is also lovely, but their debut is still my favorite.
Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Ranky Tanky (2010)
This album won top honors from all the major family-music-awarding bodies in 2010 (NAPPA, Parents' Choice, etc.) and it deserved all the praise it got. Daisy Mayhem is one of the best American roots bands currently working, and their first family album is everything it promised to be: fun, tight, musically impressive, and...um...really fun. In the interest of both full diclosure and personal pride, I should say that band members Rani Arbo, Anand Nayak, and Scott Kessel have also all played major roles on my own family albums. You won't find a more generous or musical group of people anywhere.
Marlo Thomas and Friends, Free To Be... You and Me (1972)
Perhaps the greatest family music album of all time, Free to Be is as relevant now as it was when I was a child. My girls became hooked on this album with very little prodding from me or my wife (I swear). What gives it such staying power is not just that its messages of gender equality and freedom of individual expression are at least as important today as they were in 1972 — it's that the music and stories are enduringly funny, smart, and musical. This is how you make an issue album for kids.
Session Americana, Table Top People Vol. 1 (2005)
Session Americana is a loose collective of talented Boston musicians. Table Top People, their first (double)
album, was an impressive mix of originals and covers. It was to their artistic credit that they refused to
distinguish between music for kids and adults, but it probably wasn't brilliant marketing given that a couple
of the songs had what some parents would consider grownup themes. They recently re-packaged the
album, and Volume 1 is now the more traditionally "family friendly" one. I would highly
encourage you to buy both volumes, but you should at least check out this one.
Dan Zanes, Catch That Train (2006)
What can you say about Dan Zanes that hasn't already been said? He's been a huge part of the rise of the modern indie-kid music movement and he deserves all the accolades he's received. He helped raise the bar for family music largely by hearkening back to an earlier generation of musicians, like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, who refused to dumb their music down when they wrote for kids.
Elizabeth Mitchell, You Are My Little Bird (2006)
Elizabeth Mitchell makes family music in the truest sense of that term. She performs and records with her husband Daniel Littleton and their daughter Storey, and the results are both cozy and stunning.
The following quote from the School Library Journal sums up the music nicely: "Of course, anyone can sing traditional folk tunes and strum a guitar, but to do it well and receive universal acclaim, well, that's another story... This is a superb and eclectic group of songs performed uniquely, yet flawlessly."
Laura Veirs, Tumble Bee (2011)
If you like Elizabeth Mitchell, or even just good music, you'll definitely want to check out this album by Laura Veirs. Crystalline vocals and shimmering production tastefully applied to well-chosen American folk tunes made it a standout of 2011. Tumble Bee was a side project for Laura, who is an established folk-pop performer, but it hopefully won't be her last foray into the world of family music.
Caspar Babypants, Hot Dog (2012)
I saw Caspar Babypants — aka Chris Ballew of the alt-rock band The Presidents of the United States of America — for the first time recently when he played after us at the Kindiefest Conference Showcase. It was immediately apparent why he's so popular in the kid music world. His energy on stage is infectious and he's Beatle-esque in his ability to write memorable hooks. He seems to put out an album every other month. This is the only one we have, but it's really fun.
The Nields, All Together Singing in the Kitchen (2007)
The Nields' music generally leans toward the pop-ier end of the folk spectrum. But for their first family CD they went
a more traditional route, both in terms of the material they chose and how they present it. The album is a
leisurely ramble through some of the folk classics they (and I) grew up on, and the
recording was a real family affair. One of the great pleasures of the CD is hearing Katryna and Nerissa
harmonize with their father's warm, weathered voice on several of the tracks.
Billy Jonas, Happy Accidents (2009)
Billy Jonas is funny. Very funny. And that's a hard thing to be, especially when you're playing to a wide range
of ages. My girls immediately latched on to his Knock Knock song when they were younger and started coming up with their own
knock knock jokes (pretty much their first attempts at formal joke telling). Knock knock. Who's there?
Elephant. Elephant who? The elephant is silly! Yes, yes he is. And so is Billy Jonas.
Peter Himmelman, My Green Kite (2007)
Himmelman has been an accomplished rocker for many years, often compared to heady writers like Elvis Costello
and Joe Jackson. His family albums (he's put out several since 1997) are smart, funny, and melodic. The
arrangements are thick with guitars and horns and nothing has been simplified musically, yet the tunes do not
overwhelm like some of the heavily-arranged kid-pop tunes around these days.
Vanessa Trien, Bubble Ride (2012)
Anyone who's gone to see live family music will have discovered for themselves that not all children's musicians are actually that good at engaging children. Boston-based Vanessa Trien is one of the very best. Her shows are like rock concerts for tikes, and she consistently gets kids and parents out of their seats, moving and grooving. Of her three family albums, Bubble Ride is my favorite. The music production is excellent and the tunes are charming and fun.
Lisa Redfern, Sing Me Goodnight (2010)
We don't listen to a lot of lullaby albums in our house. The girls have a white noise machine at home that generally works much better at actually putting them to sleep (which, let's face it, is the most important function of any lullaby album). But this particular album played a crucial role in our lives starting last summer when Clio began her first sustained stay in the hospital. It was a scary time for all of us, and hospitals are just not fun places to sleep. So I dug out this album by Lisa Redfern, a lovely songwriter from Maine whom I had met once a year earlier. We listened to the album every single night for the rest of Clio's stay, and it continues to be our go-to record whenever we have to stay overnight in the hospital. I know that's kind of a weird recommendation, but it's the truth. Sing Me Goodnight is beautifully recorded and the warmth of Lisa's voice is comfort incarnate. If you're looking for a lullaby album — either for home or the hospital — this is definitely one to seek out. I can vouch for its healing power…
And here are a few more recent albums we love which I've just been too lazy to get around to writing reviews for yet:
Justin Roberts, Recess (2013)
Mister G, Chocolalala (2012)
Lori Henriques, The World Is A Curious Place to Live (2012)
All of the above "family albums" get regular play in our house. But as I look back on it, there's so much missing from this list. First of all, the vast majority of what the girls and I listen to is not specifically family music (Elsa's all-time favorite singer is Sam Cooke though, I despair to say, she's recently discovered The Bieb). I assume the same is true in your house, but you don't need my help figuring out which of the albums you already love will work for your kids.
Second, here I am an American roots guy, and all but one of these albums were made in the last decade. But what can I say. As much as I adore the children's music of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, and others, we simply don't listen to their original recordings together all that often. My girls (and, ok, me too) are as much suckers for modern production as most people. The good news is that the music of those American heroes continues to be re-interpreted and recorded by new generations of artists, including myself and many of the people listed above. Some day, I hope my kids — and yours too — will be inspired to go back to the source.